Fun Facts about Fijian

Yes, I know that given that Fiji is in a perpetual state of tomorrow-ness (at least from the vantage point of my Brooklyn apartment) that it isn’t Fiji Day anymore. BUT! It still is Fiji day in many other areas of the globe as I write this, and so let me use this opportunity to share some fun facts about the Fijian Language!

  1. Among the languages I’ve learned that are distant from English, Fijian has been the easiest.

 

That said, Fijian does require work in many other ways (especially if you want to get REALLY good and identify and use dialectical and regional types of humor). But concerning the ways in which Western European Languages are considered hard, Fijian has absolutely none of it.

 

  1. Verb conjugation is non-existence, verbs change for “transitivity.”

 

Not surprisingly, this same pattern also exists in Tok Pisin and its relatives as well.  For those unaware, Tok Pisin and the other Melanesian Creoles could be described as “English poured into the mold of Melanesian Languages (with bits of other ingredients)”. Given that Fijian is the bridge between Melanesia and Polynesia and has many elements of both, this is unsurprising.

 

A transitive verb has a direct object (I eat apples). An intransitive verb has no direct object (I’m eating right now).

 

In Tok Pisin, the –im suffix is used to indicate transitivity. (It is related to the English word “him”). In Bislama it even changes depending on the vowel content of the original word.

 

Fijian has transitive and intransitive forms that are quite irregular but usually involve a two-word suffix added. Vuli – to learn. Vulica – to learn something. Guileca – to forget. Guilecava – to forget something.

 

  1. Fijian has a LOT of English Loan words.

Because of this, it is quite easy to know which animals are native to Fiji and its surrounding areas and which are not. “Vonu”, the turtle (and the name of one of Fiji’s best-known beers) is not only native to Fiji but a commonly found national symbol of sorts.  As to the elephant or the tiger, however, they would be “elefade” and “taika” respectively.

Words relating to many specialized fields are also in English as well, such as for government or administration.

An English speaker will therefore feel fairly comfortable with large chunks of Fijian vocabulary even in the absolute beginner stage.

  1. Fijian Consonants are Very Juicy

The Fijian “s” is a wonder to hear. A book told me that all s’s in Fijian are pronounced like the “ce” in “Joyce”. I remember on my flight to Nadi that the stewards said “excuse us” closer to “excussssssssse usssssssss”. Unfortunately sometimes in my earphones it can be so sharp that it sometimes hurts my ears. And given how common it is (the words “sega”, meaning “no” or “not” predictably shows up a lot),

 

The k sound also has a very sharp character to is, as does the t. Saying the word “totoka” (beautiful) shouldn’t sound lazy, it should vivacious, in a sense.

 

The r is also very thoroughly rolled, stronger than in ANY European Language. Those listening to Fijian for the first time will probably say that it sounds very unique but can’t possibly explain why that is.

 

What’s more, the d is pronounced as “nd”, the b is pronounced as “mb”, the q is pronounced as nG” and the g in pronounced “Ng”.

 

Hence, the one word that ALL tourists to Fiji will leave knowing is pronounced “mBula”, although spelled “bula”. It means “life” but also “hello”, “cheers!” or anything related to life or flourishing.

 

  1. Possessives are “classified” in three categories: things you eat or that are a part of you (ke-), things that you drink (me-), or things that you own (no-).

 

And further mixing it up. Ice cream is something you drink in Fijian, as is medicine or coconuts. And if you refer to “bia” (beer) as “noqu” this means you intend to keep it in the fridge, and if you refer to it as “mequ” that means that you intend to drink it shortly.

 

You apply endings on them to indicate who it belongs to.  Nomuni – all of yours. Noqu – mine.

 

And probably the hardest part of learning Fijian (for beginners, at least) is…

 

  1. Fijian Pronouns are a True Tangle to Speakers of European Languages – There are Sixteen of them.

In English and in other languages of Europe, we would say “we” (although some languages like Spanish might change it for a feminine form). In Fijian, you have to specify the following we’s:

  • The two of us (but not you)
  • Me and you
  • The group of us (not including you)
  • The group of us (you included)
  • The big group of us (not including you)
  • The big group of us (you included)

The other Austronesian Languages usually have similar things like this but Fijian has been the most intimidating (with Kiribati having the least intimidating). It should also be mentioned that yes, the Melanesian Creoles use the exact same system (Vanuatu’s National Anthem is “Yumi, Yumi, Yumi”, and even if you didn’t know anything about inclusive / exclusive we’s until now, you can probably guess what that means).

I made this a lot less scarier in my video:

 

  1. Fijian Music is Legendary AND Everywhere in Fiji

 

Sitting in a place like the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva and taking in the sounds of singers from all sides of the islands is a divine experience. Fijians will boast to you that they have the most moving songs in the world that can be found nowhere else. I don’t blame them.

 

 

And while not too inclusive, http://www.fijianlyrics.com/ is a very useful resources.

 

  1. Fijians will Compliment You Endlessly and Help You Learn

In contrast to a lot of Western Countries in which some people feel the need to force English down tourist’s throats, or somehow show off how “worldly” they are, Fijians have a deep cultural pride that will radiate if you can express anything in Fijian at all.

Many of them will be willing to become your impromptu teachers. I even had JANITORS providing me useful tips when in many European countries not even friends would give them.

This was not as true in Suva where there are Indo-Fijians and people from throughout the Pacific also present in large numbers and in which hearing the locals speak English with each OTHER is not uncommon.

If you’ve ever had any negative experiences with language immersion, do yourself a favor and learn Fijian and get some Fijian friends. They’ll love you for it.

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Each of my Language Learning Journeys, Summarized Humorously in One Sentence Each

I’ll be posting something about my underaccomplishment with the 30-Day Challenge in Greenlandic in the coming days, but I thought it would be very humorous for me to try something else for a change.
By the way, my Fijian is getting FANTASTICALLY better with each coming day (I still have some blind spots that will be weeded out in the coming weeks, not also to mention the fact that I’ve been focusing mostly on speaking rather than listening or reading right now, given that I’ll be doing most of THAT when I’m in Fiji. Listening, reading and writing will no doubt follow, and I’m not even sure if writing exercises for Fijian would be effort ideally paid off because the only people I know who have lived in Fiji have been expats that only know a few words / sentences of Fijian.)

 

My list to be cleared with Fijian includes:

 

– numbers up until 1 billion

– FULLY mastering the complication plural pronouns (they come in four persons, singular, dual, paucal and plural — indicating 1, 2, a group and a BIG group)

– Family member words (significantly more complicated than in the languages of Western Europe)

– Grammatical kinks to be ironed out (especially politeness tiers and transitive suffixes on verbs).

 

Anyhow, you’ve come for humor so that’s what you’re getting. Please don’t take any of these too seriously 🙂

 

English – Even if you speak me natively, there will always be one proper noun that throws you off–so deal with it!

Ancient Hebrew – the closest a language ever got to resembling the mechanics of alphabet refrigerator magnets.

Bislama – Most people found out about this language through either a friend, a phrasebook or most likely of all…a Polandball meme!
Pijin – It’s Bislama without any French interjections. 🙂

Tok Pisin – What do you get when you cross Australian English with 800+ languages?

Trinidadian Creole English – Good luck trying to find written resources for this one.

German – The language that you realize is dangerously similar in many ways to Shakespeare’s English, but you only realize it if you’re beyond the intermediate stage.

Spanish – How many layers of slang would you like with your language? (I almost wrote “the language that people learn to say that they’re learning a language.”, but I decided against it. Or did I?)

Yiddish – you’d be surprised how much American English slang borrowed from me, but you’ll never know unless we spend quality time together.

Norwegian – exactly the linguistic kaleidoscope you would expect from a country that is 96% uninhabitable land.

Swedish – be prepared to learn EVERYTHING about syllable stress if you expect to be friends with me!

Danish – rumors of my difficulty have been very greatly exaggerated.

Icelandic – the language whose future everyone likes to freak out about.

Salone Krio – it’s like what American English would be if it were grammatically consistent, had regular spelling and made sense.

Hebrew – the language of the Bible, sprinkled with influence from French teachers, Russian emigres and American TV, among others.

Finnish – don’t let the big tables intimidate you, a lot of those forms you’ll almost never use in conversation.

Fijian – Wait, if there ARE enlongated vowels, how come they’re not written out? What do you mean, you’re just supposed to know? WHY?!!!?

Jamaican Patois – If you want to find out how open-minded someone REALLY is, mention the fact that you’re either learning this language or speak it fluently as an L2….be prepared!

Hungarian – Native speakers will love you for this…100% guarantee or your money back!

Polish – one of two langauges that caused me to nearly throw my computer in rage (the other one is below this one)

Greenlandic – How long do you like your words? 15 letter? 26 letters? 62 letters?

Lao – we disguised our Indo-European loan words really well. Come and find ’em!

Kiribati / Gilbertese – And you thought Dominican Spanish was fast.

Irish – Frightening learners with its orthography since time immemorial.

Myanmar / Burmese – There are four tones. Make that three tones. Make that two tones.

Tajik – Contrary to popular belief, Tajikistan is NOT a fictional country…Farsi’s little sibling lives there!

Palauan – Consonant jumble jamble!
Vincentian Creole English – I’m actually not a tonal language.

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Overwhelmed and Defeated: My Decision to Drop Out of the Burmese Challenge and What It Means

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!

Speaking of darkness, I think today would be a good day to admit something:

Not everything goes right in my world.

A lot of people hear about me, see the MundoLingo stickers on my shirt, or otherwise get out of me the fact that I am a hyperpolyglot and assume that I have an “easy” time picking up new languages.

Well, with the exceptions of those very closely related to ones I know already, the answer is…no, I don’t have an easy time with it. I would venture that no one anywhere actually does. Usually, as was the case with some of my languages like Hebrew, Finnish and even Sierra Leone Krio earlier this year, it was a case of “doing something that you’re not very good at until you find yourself slowly leveling up until you’re reasonable and, then, eventually, very good”.

True, learning additional languages does enable you to detect patterns more easily and find uncanny similarities between even the most distant of languages (The Creoles I’ve studied and languages of Southeast Asia, I’ve noticed, share similarities in grammatical forms). But despite any advantages one may or may not have, it becomes an issue of grit and determination.

Alas, for my 30-Day Burmese Challenge too many things got in the way. The path to developing my video game required extra investment on my part. I felt as though a lot of the tasks in the last ten days were just too hard given my current level of Burmese. What’s more, I actually had a friend of mine die earlier this week.

That said, for January 2018 I will continue with a renewed plan keeping in mind “what I did wrong”.

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For one:

  • I may have overestimated my level of Burmese.
  • I may have overestimated what “willpower” alone can do.
  • I may have been affected by the seasons.
  • I may have been affected by transitions (a video game that I’ve tested is scheduled for a release in the near future).
  • I may have just chosen to do TOO MUCH.

That last point is important. The Lao project was a success because I felt that it was the right amount. With Greenlandic AND Burmese at the same time, I reached my breaking point. It would be one thing if one of them were a European Language with a lot of cognates to English and political power on the web. (I expect my January 2018 Hungarian challenge to be a LOT easier than anything I’ve done with my 30-day Challenges for non-Western languages thus far).

No one succeeds all of the time. If you think that someone is, you’re just looking at the surface.

I think the “beginning of the end” may have been when I watched a Burmese film with a lot of monk characters and I found myself unable to understand a lot of what was being said (by comparison, even with Lao which I had significantly LESS experience with, I was capable of understanding a good 30%, and for Greenlandic roughly a bit more).

Will I give up Burmese? Definitely not.

Am I glad I did this? Most certainly. AND I am likely to do the restaurant challenge next week AND put together the final video, most likely over the course of the weekend.

But I’m going to have to redo my plan for January 2018:

January 2018: Hungarian 30-Day Speaking Challenge. I think this will help a lot with my vocabulary gaps.

Also January 2018: Vincentian Creole 2-Week Challenge. Expose myself to Vincentian Creole (of St. Vincent and the Grenadines) every day from January 1st until January 14th. Then afterwards I’ll do one of the following:

  • Antiguan Creole for second half of January 2018
  • Grenadian Creole for second half of January 2018 (if I get the book)
  • Review Caribbean Creoles I already know well for the second half of January 2018 (Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole and including Sierra Leone Creole as an honorary member).

Already I’m beginning to listen to Vincentian material every day during my commute. I’ll tell you more about it in another post. Although it has been interesting so far.

It’s been the first language I’ve been learning with literally NO resources for it that I can find. I’ve found religious materials for Christians and have been listening to them and NOTING the differences between Jamaican Patois and “Trini” to the best of my ability.

What’s more, the Grenada Market responded enthusiastically with my desire to find more materials to learn Grenadian Creole. Let’s hope I have luck.

Obviously in February and beyond I’ll turn my focus elsewhere other than Hungary and the Caribbean.

In the meantime, I’m drawing up an ambitious list of what I want done for 2018. And boy, will I dwarf every other year with what will happen!

May light be ever-present in your life!

Hungary and Vincy

30-Day Speaking Challenge, or The Gift of Lao

Just the right thing I needed in order to drill the “ONE LANGUAGE AT A TIME” thing home: came across a link to a 30-Day Speaking Challenge in a Facebook group and decided to get in on the action before the new month of November came in.

You can read more about the challenge here: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

For those of you who probably don’t want to click on the link, I’ll share the concept here: film / record yourself speaking a bit of your target language for thirty days in a row, publish the results in a group and get feedback / encouragement / what have you.

Now interestingly the language that I chose was Lao and there’s a strategic importance behind it:

  • It’s small enough for me to be passionate about it, but also is close enough to Thai to the degree that maybe a speaker of it could help me even if he or she hasn’t made much exposure to Lao. From what I know: they seem to differ in their pronoun usage as well as in some key words, not also to mention the fact that they use different (although similar) writing systems. What’s more, Lao tends to include pronouns in sentences and speech more often than Thai does (which can omit the pronoun the same way that Burmese or Japanese ordinarily would do. In layman’s terms: in Burmese I would say “have food” in order to indicate “[I] have food”, “there is food”, “we have food”, etc. That’s not passable in English [except in VERY casual speech] and in that respect Lao resembles English in which the pronouns are commonly used.
  • It’s tonal and if there is ANY language I would strongly need a community for, it would be a tonal language.
  • I correctly predicted that most people doing the challenge would be doing European Languages, wanted to get “other continents in on the action”.
  • I’ve had more exposure to my other tonal language, Burmese, as well as significant practice using it. That said, I may consider doing Burmese in a future 30-day speaking challenge.
  • I’m not an absolute beginner in Lao (A1 at the moment)

 

I just submitted my second recording to the spreadsheet and may consider publicizing the 30-day result depending on how much I like it. Hey, it seems that I’m 1/15th of the way done!

Here’s how I predict the challenge will affect me:

 

  • It will make me take my construction of the “Temple to Lao” more seriously.

 

When I was interviewed by Ari in Beijing in April, I mentioned the fact that the most important thing for learning a language is the fact that you need to build a “temple” to your target language within your time routines.

 

The only real way I’ve been doing that so far is with my YouTube channel. Sure, reading Lao dialogues out loud with some funny commentary and messing up the tones can be entertaining, but there’s so much more I could be doing.

 

I could become as immersed in Lao culture the same way I was with Greenlandic or Yiddish. I could truly feel as though understanding this poor and “forgotten” country is something I shouldn’t back away from.

 

My peers in the group have been very supportive of me thus far, and I’m thankful for that.

 

  • I Will Learn to Have More Mercy on Myself

 

I don’t speak languages from East Asia very well (although Burmese is by far my strongest out of…two…). I should expect to make mistakes and realize that I’m not getting any Lao trophies or getting to watch any Free Lao YouTube movies without any subtitles without a lot of work. And that work is going to involve discipline, learning how to make sounds I’m not used to, and, very importantly, on the importance of tones.

I hold myself to extremely high standards. A lot of people in the group are uploading recordings upwards of three minutes on the first day. Most of them are learning European Languages and are native speakers of European Languages so they have an advantage that I just don’t have. It’ll take me longer for me to make progress in Lao than it will for an English speaker to make progress with French.

And that’s okay.

And sometimes I worry that I mess up the tones entirely and completely.

And that’s okay too. For now!

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Explore Lao Culture and Identity as a Hobby as a Result of This Challenge. That will Enforce my Desire to Learn It More.

 

Already within these two days I’ve begun  to see it happen. I’m monumentally increasing my exposure to Lao and commitment to learning more about it, even if it involves reading books and travel blogs in English.

 

I’m beginning to see more of what the world looks like through Laotian eyes. And with each new culture I feel more human, more fulfilled and more righteous.

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Focus On One Task

 

I have a bunch of languages to improve, but I think that if I give the lion’s share of my focus to one task, I’ll be able to gain confidence more quickly and that will carry over to my other languages, both ones that I speak fluently and ones that I don’t speak as well.

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a lot better focusing more on improving just my Lao rather than improving Lao alongside Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and Tajik. I can maintain those on the side (or what I know of it), but I think that this focus is helping me fall in love.

And it seems that this is the beginning of something lovely!

LAO

How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!

8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.

More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.

Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”

(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)

Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.

 

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Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

  1. Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!

 

“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”

WRONG!

Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.

(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)

I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).

With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.

In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

  1. With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.

 

In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).

Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)

But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.

In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.

 

  1. Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process

 

At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!

Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).

Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.

But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)

You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.

 

  1. Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.

 

I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).

If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.

My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).

One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.

And speaking of books…

 

  1. Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)

Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).

That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.

For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.

So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.

But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…

 

  1. Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.

 

 

Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)

Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?

Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)

Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.

 

  1. Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.

 

You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.

I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

  1. Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.

 

I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.

Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.

2016-10-31-19-21-52

I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?

It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).

Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.

myanmarsaga

I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.

Why Greenlandic is Easy

Today is a special day on multiple accounts! The Summer Solstice, Midsummer, American Father’s Day, last and certainly not least, the National Day of Greenland!

Thanks largely to having to prepare a project for publication in Autumn I left this blog unchanged (although not alone!) for about a month (it would be exactly a month tomorrow, if not for this post).

I was wondering what I could do to honor Greenland Day. More songs? I got plenty of them from the blog’s birthday back in May. Describe the language and my journey with it? I have a feeling that I’ve already done that.

Well…while thinking about it yesterday, I remember that one Norwegian linguist (Rolf Theil) actually described the Greenlandic Language as the “hardest to learn in the world”.

His rationale: lots and lots of suffixes. Part of me doesn’t blame him, I have a printout of the complete lists of Greenlandic suffixes in my living room, there are about 300 for verbs and 100 for adjectives.

But I was never one for discouragement anyhow, so this post is your antidote.

I told my friends for a long time that Greenlandic was the most difficult language I ever struggled with. I really have to say that…it is no longer true. I have found Irish far worse, although I have found both very beautiful experiences and languages and very worthwhile indeed, despite what others may want to tell you.

Anyhow, let’s get through it…

2015-03-05 13.54.21

Alphabet: The alphabet used for Greenlandic, unlike that of the Canadian aboriginal languages, is the one that you are currently reading this in. The special letters found in Danish (æøå) also surface but only in Danish loanwords, which appear more often than you might think at first glance.

A sausage is pølsi, beef is bøffi, and in Copenhagen is Københavnimi, sometimes written København-imi.

You don’t need to learn a new system of writing. Case closed.

Pronunciation: Minus the Danish and (very few) English words, pronunciation in Greenlandic is very predictable although there are a few things to consider (this isn’t as straightforward as Finnish or Esperanto).

There are a total of three vowels: a, i, and u. e and o also exist, but as mutations of I and u respectively. Furthermore, all of these vowels can be doubled. The primary trick to remember is that “a” (not “aa”) is pronounced as a short a sound. So “tassa” (this) is pronounced like English “dessa”, with the syllables having a hint of rhyme)

T is pronounced as in English, but when it comes before an I, it shifts to a “tz” sound.

The letters “i” and combinations with it like “it” that come at the end of words are not pronounced like “ee” but instead with a short I sound (like English “bit”) that is significantly weaker than in English (say “I’ll be back in a bit” quickly and note how you pronounce the last word. Like that).

And then some tricky combinations: “l” is pronounced a bit like “dl”, with the “d” very slightly. With all of these rules in mind, see if you can pronounce the word “silami” (“outside”, or, more literally, “in the weather”).

“See-lamb-meh”

Oh, did I owe you some more tricky combinations? “rr” is pronounced as a very rolled r (imagine a very stereotypical French rolling of the r”. “ll” is pronounced the same as in Welsh (I’ll demonstrate it shortly).

And then the “q” sound. The Inuktitut / Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary notes this sound as a simple “rk” sound, but you want to pronounce this at the back of the throat.

If doubled, as in “qq”, this means that it is stronger. Note that the combination of “qar” means that the “a” loses its short pronunciation, so that it rhymes with “car”.

“-qar” is very important. It means “to have” or, in some cases, “to be present” (inoqarpa? = is someone there? [Lit. Person.have.3d-sin-question?). But when you change it to “qanngilaq” (inoqanngilaq = there is no one there), the “a” is pronounced like a short a again, like “rang” in English).

I can’t explain the ll sound to those who haven’t heard it

Now, with all of those in mind, your turn:

The first words of this song (courtesy of “Sussat!”) are “Asaneruleraluttuinarsinnaarpasippakkimmi­ illit” (Note: the “mmi is pronounced as an “ee” because the following syllable is an “I”. But note: “ee-ll-it”. Note the “ll” sound.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzFt6knmZBY

With all of that in mind, your turn:

“Tikilluaritsi!” (Welcome, all of you!)

Good J

The Logic Component: There’s this thing in some Indo-European Languages in which “logic” isn’t particularly followed most of the time, and people are surprised when the navigate outside of the family, expecting to find awfully difficult words, and then they encounter simpler rules (take Greenlandic, Finnish or Turkish for example) and then they wonder why anyone is crazy enough to call Spanish an easy language to learn.

I’m currently learning a handful of computer languages right now as a part of my job (and yes, I will write a comparison between human language learning and computer language learning!) and the constructing of commands gave me flashbacks to when I was struggling with Greenlandic.

Let’s start with a simple suffix: “-gooq”, meaning “it has been said”, or “somebody else said”.

“Qanoq?” = How?

+gooq

=

“Qanorooq? = “What did he/she say?

Two things:

  • Q + G = R. There are other combinations that alter endings as such but I can’t introduce them all here.
  • “Qanorooq”, if you looked on google.gl already, is the name of a Greenlandic news show. Good name, don’t you think?

And just like mathematics, Greenlandic follows these rules upon getting more complicated:

Kiilumut 40 kroneqarpoq. Pissaviuk?

One Kilo costs 40 Danish Crowns. Do you want it?

Kiilu+mut = Kilo (Danish import) + mut (ablative, more lik “for” or “through”, and other uses I don’t want to get into).

40 = Let’s go on record here and say that in Greenlandic, all numbers higher than 12 are all Danish. Two-for-one!

Krone = Danish word for a crown. Pronounce like English word “groan” + “eh”

Qar + poq = qar (see above) + poq (3rd person singular verb ending).

Pi + ssa + vi + uk = Something / take something + future + you (question) (Full form is “vit”) + it.

Plurals: Yiddish has a lot of ways of forming the plurals, the Germanic languages in general do tend to have a plethora.

Greenlandic is not Esperanto (as regular as you can get), but it does have only 10 plural constructions, some of which only exists for a handful of words. All of them, however, have a t at the end. Examples: Ateq (name) = aqqit (names) erneq (son) = ernerit (sons) inuk (person) = inuit (people).

Yes, the word “Inuit” literally means “people”.

Acquiring vocabulary: You have to be smart about this! You should NOT be memorizing long formulates to begin with. You should be learning the small bits first, and from these bits you should be putting your own words together.

I think Theil and many others (including myself) tried at first by memorizing lots and lots of BIG words. But imagine if you tried to learn a language using only sentences rather than individual vocabulary? That wouldn’t go over too well.

You need a balance, on the side of smaller things.

 

Wrapping Up: Every time I look at a Greenlandic/Danish or Greenlandic/English vocabulary list, I am struck by how, in Greenlandic, everything makes extraordinary sense! Take English “food”. The Greenlandic equivalent? Inuussutissat. If you recognized “inuk” in there, good. It means, very roughly, “something people use to let themselves keep going into the future”. I could give more examples, but this I’ve given you too much already.

kalaallit nunaat

Pilluarit! Apuulluarna! (Congratulations! May you come to reach your destination/goal!)